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DOD Improves Construction Standards After Natural Disasters

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 17, 2019) -- In October 2018, the Category 5 Hurricane Michael caused billions of dollars in damage to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. This summer, earthquakes in California wrought extensive damage to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

But lessons learned from those incidents are being incorporated into the standards for future construction projects at military installations to increase resilience.

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Robert H. McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment spoke before a joint hearing of two House Armed Services Committee subcommittees yesterday.

"We take the lessons we learn from each of these installations -- whether it is the construction, whether it's the roofing, what we are doing on one floor versus another -- and roll that in on an annual basis to continuously update what those standards are to ensure that, as we get to the next either rehab or new construction, that those standards are, in fact, reflected in the way that we build the facility," McMahon said.

The hearing, before the subcommittees on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities as well as readiness, focused on the resiliency of military installations to emerging threats.

"As we look out over the last decade or two decades, the challenges and threats we face within our installations have grown dramatically," McMahon said. "It's climate. It's the challenge we also face with regards to natural disasters, whether that be earthquakes, whether that be forest fires, whether that be deforestation or drought."

McMahon said the department must acknowledge the climate is changing and find solutions to ensure military installations remain resilient and ready.

"We look at the way that we proactively put together our standards, our building standards, they need to be continuously updated as we learn about what is occurring with these natural disasters," he said.

Other threats to military installations include electromagnetic pulses and unmanned aerial vehicles. McMahon said the department is aware of both types of threats and is working towards solutions.

McMahon said Ellen M. Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment is working on solutions to counter possible drone threats to military installations, as are the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

An executive order issued earlier this year provided guidance to move forward with mitigating the threat from electromagnetic pulses, he said. Not every facility needs to be hardened against electromagnetic pulses, he added, but understanding which ones do and how to accomplish that is critical.

Lawmakers were also concerned about the use of PFAS -- per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- foams in fire-fighting applications.

"We are concerned about three things," McMahon said. "One, how do we mitigate what we are doing today? [Two,] how do we ensure that we understand the health of the individuals that may have been affected by this? And, finally, how do we clean up the messes that are out there today? This is a national issue, not just a DOD issue."

McMahon said the department is working aggressively to find an alternative to firefighting foams that contain PFAS. In November, he said, there will be a summit with representatives of the military departments to discuss work that's already been done.

Representatives of the military departments, who were also at the hearing, confirmed for lawmakers that PFAS foam is no longer used in training exercise.

"Our goal is to make sure the only time it's used is in an actual emergency and that it's treated as a spill and cleaned up appropriately, which ought to dramatically reduce any additional exposures until we find that replacement," McMahon said.

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